Stage Animal / In Hebrew, 'play' is feminine
The Israeli theater is in pretty good shape when it comes to gender equality, with women serving in several major managerial positions as well as writers, directors, lighting designers and, of course, actors International Women's Day was marked around the world yesterday, for the 99th time. (It was first held on March 19, 1911 in honor of the date in 1848, during the Spring of Nations, on which the King of Prussia promised to grant women the right to vote. He did not keep his promise). The day after, once we have sobered up and the festivities have ended, is a time for a routine review of the status of women in the world of Israeli theater.
Traditionally and historically, the art of theater discriminates against women: Until the 18th century they were rarely given the right to set foot on stage. Female roles - in Shakespeare, for example - were assigned to boys (which led to reverse discrimination in our own time, in the form of all-male productions, some of which are absolutely captivating, of Shakespeare's plays). Even later, up until the early 20th century, some equated the theater with a brothel in terms of the presence of women.
But as this discipline historically discriminated against women given that it was run by men (white ones), the comparison can be made quickly. Today, as the figures on Israeli theater that I am about to present will show, the position of women in the field is solid. Women are equal, perhaps even more equal. This does not resolve the existing inequality with regard to challenging roles in classic plays, which favors men (and tempts actresses to tackle male roles) - there is no lack of examples.
Let us start with the obvious: I do not have any official figures (the Center for Research and Information, which coordinates the collection of data on theater-going in Israel, does not break down the figures by gender), but one of the most widely known facts is that women represent a majority of the total audiences of cultural programs.
But these are assumptions, with no corroborative data. And now, the facts. The Israeli Opera has a female general director, Hanna Munitz. Beit Lessin Theater has a female general and artistic director, Tzipi Pines, for whom wishes for a complete and speedy recovery are in order. On Saturday she was injured in a traffic accident whose circumstances, despite being painful, follow a theatrical tradition: Her scarf became tangled in the wheels of the motorcycle she was riding, fortunately with a different ending than that met by Isadora Duncan. The Herzliya Ensemble's artistic director, Ofira Henig, previously held that position at Jerusalem's Khan Theater and for the Israel Festival. The director general of Gesher Theater is Lena Kreindlin, who also directs there. Odelia Friedman is one of Habima Theater's two co-directors. The Itim Ensemble has been headed by Rina Yerushalmi for nearly a quarter of a century. I do not mention here the managers of the country's regional theater halls, who have a tremendous impact on the repertory shown in them. Tmuna Theater is run by Nava Zuckerman, and women frequently direct plays staged there.
There are, of course, areas where for seemingly understandable reasons there will be a male majority: Stagehands, for example, are referred to in the masculine, in Hebrew. But I am willing to bet that when it comes to stage managers and assistant directors, women are in the majority at most theaters. Sets and costumes, once the domain of men, are today often the province of women.
Those working actively in the fields in Israel include set and costume designers Ruth Dar (and her daughter Oren Dar, who works both as her mother's assistant and independently), Edna Sobol, Neta Hacker, Orna Smorgonsky, Lili Ben Nachshon, Kinneret Kish and Miki Ben-Cnaan. Some of them are graduates of the design program in Tel Aviv University's theater department, established by Lydia Pincus-Gani.
Israeli lighting designers have nothing to be ashamed of: Yehiel Orgal and Ben Zion Munitz are two of the founding fathers and Avi-Yonah Bueno (Bambi) has retained his place of pride, but Keren Gernak, Hani Vardi and Judy Kupferman work nonstop in all of Israel's theaters and often abroad as well. All the theater critics in the major media outlets are men, but this was not always the case: Shosh Avigal and Shosh Weitz, both deceased, wrote much of the history of Israeli theater in their reviews over a fairly long period, in the 1980s and '90s.
Before moving on to actors and actresses I took the liberty of taking an nonbinding and incomplete inventory of the repertory presented to the largest audiences by the country's three most active theaters (according to the survey), which were the focus of my last two columns: Cameri, Habima and Beit Lessin.
I based my poll on the theater's Internet sites and included productions in rehearsal that I have yet to see as well as adaptations and guest productions. For each theater I looked at the number of productions in process, the number of plays where one or more women had lead roles and the number that were written or directed (or both) by women.
The results are as follows:
The Cameri Theater is staging 41 productions simultaneously. By my count, a woman is at the center in 11 of the plays (around one fourth): the opera "Flying Lessons," written by Nava Semel and Ella Milch-Sheriff and directed by Yael Ronen; "And the Rat Laughed," another opera by Semel and Milch-Sheriff; "Yentl," starring Ola Schur-Selektar; "Knives in Hens" by the Itim Ensemble; Anat Gov's "A Warm Family," directed by Edna Mazya; "The Good Soul of Szechuan," also with Schur-Selektar; Anat Gov's "Oh God," directed by Mazya and now with Sara von Schwartze as the female lead; Edna Mazya's "Was it a Dream?," about Hanna Rovina. The role was created for Helena Yaralova, who is recovering from a traffic accident. Limor Goldstein has replaced her.
Edna Mazya's "Games in the Backyard" about a case involving teenage rape, has taken on a renewed verisimilitude, unfortunately. Hani Furstenberg plays the lead; "Plonter," written and directed by Yael Ronen; Hanoch Levin's "Thrill My Heart": The leads are both men, but the focus is on two women, played by Gita Munte and Tamar Keenan (who sometimes alternates with Meirav Gruber). We end with "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," with Anat Waxman as Martha.
Habima has only 24 plays in production. Ten feature a female lead: Ruby Porat Shoval's "Birth Mark"; "Nutcase," written and directed by Yael Ronen; Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues," directed by Dedi Baron; Andrew Bergman's "Social Security," with Devora Keidar in the lead; "His Whole Life Ahead of Him," with Lia Kenig; "August: Osage County" with Gila Almagor and Miki Peleg-Rothstein, among others. Then we have Chekhov's "The Seagull, "Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes from a Marriage;" Pinter's "Betrayal" and "The Same Sea" by Amos Oz. In these, the feminine aspect is highlighted by the excellent acting of Osnat Fishman, Vered Feldman, Lilian Barreto and Sandra Sade, respectively. Six were written or directed by women - Yael Ronen, in three cases.
The last theater in this schematic counting is Beit Lessin, with 22 current productions - five of them in rehearsal or new. In seven, the play revolves around a woman. These are Rachel Gil's "Foreign Worker"; Orly Rubinstein-Katsap's "Tania," directed by Noya Lancet (both with Zaharira Harifai); "Alma and Ruth" by Goren Agmon and "Terms of Endearment," both with Yona Elian in the lead; Savyon Liebrecht's "The Banality of Love," about Hannah Arendt, played by Leora Rivlin and Michal Shtamler; "Apples from the Desert," also by Liebrecht, with Rivlin again as well as Rivka Neuman; Hillel Mittelpunkt's "Anda," with Neuman and Keren Tzur sharing the leading. Six were written (Liebrecht, Goren) or directed (Pines, Baron, Lancet) by women.
Can we learn something from this? Yes. We can see that plays written or directed by women tend to focus on one or more women. This provides actresses with roles and corrects a historical injustice. On the other hand, attention is barely given to classic roles written for women throughout the history of theater, but this does not constitute discrimination: There is, as a rule, little attention given to the classics.
One last item: I can think of 10 actresses (well, at least five) who could be considered - or who could consider herself - as the "first lady of Israeli theater." No one has ever thought to call any of their male counterparts "Mr. Israeli Theater." And one more, absolutely final item: In Hebrew the word theater is in the masculine form; the words for play, production and preproduction are all feminine.